What You'll Learn
- Unhealthy vs. Healthy Perfectionism
- How Perfectionism is Gendered
- The Myth of Balance
- How Healthy Perfectionism Helps Our Mental Health
- The Role of Values in Healthy Perfectionism
- How to Reclaim Healthy Perfectionism
I typically don’t think of perfectionism as healthy. Perfectionism in motherhood can be harmful. It’s linked to an increased risk of postpartum depression and anxiety. It leaves us feeling like we’re not doing enough. And it makes us question whether we’re failing at our most important role.
I work with a lot of moms on letting go of perfectionism, adjusting expectations, embracing flexibility, and letting go of the concept of the perfect mom.
So when I started reading the book The Perfectionist's Guide to Losing Control by Katherine Morgan Shafler, I was surprised. She didn’t view perfectionism in that light. Instead, she argued that there are two forms of perfectionism—a healthy form and an unhealthy form.
In her book, she points out that perfectionism is a natural tendency—and that rather than trying to change our personality type, we can instead move toward healthy perfectionism.
This concept challenged my thinking in a good way. Maybe we don’t have to toss out perfectionism altogether—maybe we just need to look at it in a different way and let go of the unhealthy thinking that is often wrapped up in it.
I couldn’t wait to pick Katherine’s brain about unhealthy vs. healthy perfectionism and how moms can hold onto their ambitious side without getting caught up in the perfect mother myth.
Unhealthy vs. Healthy Perfectionism
Many people think of perfectionism as a pressure we put on ourselves to do everything flawlessly, criticizing ourselves when we fail.
In motherhood, this form of perfectionism becomes wrapped up with the intensive mothering ideology, which tells us that we must be and do more, sacrificing ourselves and giving every moment of time and energy to our children. This leaves moms feeling like they can never do enough.
But Katherine said that while that definition of perfectionism isn’t wrong, it’s incomplete. She defines perfectionism as the ability to envision a better, improved reality and have an active compulsion to bridge the gap between that and the current reality.
Healthy perfectionism understands that ideals are meant to inspire, but unhealthy perfectionism thinks that ideals are meant to be achieved.
Healthy perfectionism understands that ideals are meant to inspire, not to be achieved.
She also pointed out that if you identify with being a perfectionist, you aren’t “unhealthy” or “healthy.” You carry both sides. But you can adjust how perfectionism shows up and how you think about it.
Katherine said that instead of telling ourselves that we need to break away from perfectionism altogether to be healthy, we can instead think about how we can create support and move through challenges. We need to establish safety to fail, make mistakes, and not arrive at the ideal that we envision.
Perfectionism isn’t always pushing ourselves and beating ourselves up when we don’t hit the ideal. Katherine believes that healthy perfectionism can use our tendency toward ambition to help and heal us.
How Perfectionism is Gendered
Katherine also points out that the concept of perfectionism also gets tied into gender. Just like we often tell little girls they are bossy when we don’t use that same word for boys, we often call women perfectionists when we don’t assign the word toward men with the same tendencies.
We don’t often hear men call themselves perfectionists or recovering perfectionists. But women who are ambitious receive this label, and often judgment that goes with it.
Men with perfectionist tendencies are considered visionary, focused, driven, or leaders. Women with perfectionist tendencies are seen as uptight, rigid, and difficult.
Women with perfectionist tendencies are seen as uptight, rigid, and difficult.
Katherine pointed out that women often aren’t allowed to be ambitious without receiving judgment. She said that we need to recognize this gendered lens of perfectionism and be critical about the language we use and the way that gender role expectations play into it.
The Myth of Balance
The discussion of perfectionism often gets wrapped up in gender norms and expectations, especially when it comes to moms.
Katherine said that women who are driven in their careers are often told to temper their perfectionism and find “balance.” Men are rarely encouraged to do the same.
She also pointed out that the idea of balance is unrealistic—it’s an urban legend.
The concept of work/life balance implies that work is a separate part of your life. But we can’t divide ourselves into all of the different directions we’re pulled and turn off everything else. We can’t let go of family when we’re working and vice versa. The pressure to do so leaves us feeling more pressured and frustrated.
Moms often feel like they need to seek more balance because they feel as if they are failing at work and at home.
But maybe the discussion is less about what those individual moms can do to “have it all” or “achieve balance” and more about the fact that they are expected to juggle essentially two full-time roles, often working outside the home and still carrying the bulk of the invisible load. They’re often told that they are “supermoms” rather than offered support. Moms don’t need to be told they’re superheroes—they need help.
Moms don’t need to be told they’re superheroes—they need help.
Katherine said that the right question isn’t “what should I be doing more of or less of?” It’s “how can we open up the conversation about the fact that moms are carrying an impossible load?”
She pointed out that balance shouldn’t be an external experience, focused on time. It should be an internal experience. If we could call in support, let go of labor that doesn’t align with our values, and set boundaries to let us have more time and space, we’re not failing at balance—we’re succeeding.
How Healthy Perfectionism Helps Our Mental Health
It’s often very hard for moms to let go of unhealthy perfectionism. We’re conditioned to believe that we should be giving 100% of ourselves to our child every moment of every day. So the concept of letting go and embracing flexibility feels uncomfortable.
When rigid perfectionism is woven into our ideal of what it means to be a good mother, adjusting our expectations can feel like we’re failing.
But Katherine pointed out that when we try to be everything for our children, we can create an unhealthy codependent relationship, where our happiness is dependent on them. This in turn teaches them that their happiness should depend on another person.
Our children don’t need us to push ourselves to the brink trying to be “on” all the time or make “perfect” decisions. They need us to take care of ourselves and show up authentically.
When we show up as our whole selves, we give our children permission to do the same.
This models for them that their needs matter, that our fulfillment doesn’t come from those around us, and that sacrificing ourselves isn’t what love is. When we show up as our whole selves, we give our children permission to do the same.
We often want a measuring stick to determine whether we’re doing the role of motherhood well. But when the measuring stick is perfection, we will inevitably fall short.
Instead, we can reframe what being a “good mom” means using our own internal guide by leaning on our values—the principles that matter most to us and how we want to show up as moms.
Then, the measuring stick isn’t based on how our children behaved, what they ate, how clean our home is, or how many “right” decisions we made. Instead, it’s based on what we as individuals truly care about.
The Role of Values in Healthy Perfectionism
Katherine pointed out that when we are anchored in our values, we can readjust our perfectionism in a healthy way to allow us to embody what is most important.
For example, maybe playfulness is important to you—and in the process of creating playfulness, mess happens. But if your value is playfulness (not tidiness) then you can let go of the need to have a spotless home—it doesn’t help you live out those most important values.
We can’t be and do it all. Tuning into our values helps us determine what to focus on and what to prioritize. This is how we put boundaries to our perfectionism, channeling it in a healthy way. We can still flexibly and reasonably work toward an ideal—but the ideal is in alignment with what we believe in, not with an external expectation of perfection.
Katherine related healthy perfectionism to ambition. When we are ambitious, we look ahead of us and not behind us. That isn’t a bad thing—and it doesn’t need to be fixed or recovered from.
But by reframing the concept of perfectionism and creating healthy flexibility around it, we can lean on that ambitious side without unrealistic pressures, guilt, and shame.
How to Reclaim Healthy Perfectionism
Adjusting our expectations is a great first place to start in building healthy perfectionism. Katherine recommends celebrations in the process—not in achievement. This allows us to feel good about progress without adhering to rigid definitions of success.
She also said that it’s important to acknowledge that the deck is stacked against moms—we aren’t in a system set up with support. When we can’t “do it all,” we aren’t failing, and we aren’t flawed.
Katherine also pointed out that the greatest predictor of mental health is relational wealth—which is true for us and for our children. We don’t have to do more or check off a list of external accomplishments to create a great life for us and our children. We just need to feel connection and love.
Healthy and happy kids have access to strong relationships. And when we take care of our own needs, we can show up in a way that fosters a strong relationship and helps our children learn how to create those relationships with other people in their lives as well.
Katherine said that the number one way to teach children is to model a living example of someone who prioritizes their own care and entitlement to take pleasure in their life.
This isn’t always easy to do—it often requires breaking lifelong patterns. But Katherine said that if you are struggling with unhealthy perfectionism, something in you is being called to heal. You have to believe that you deserve to take care of your needs, and take a dramatic stand in prioritizing your own sense of personhood.
If you are struggling with unhealthy perfectionism, something in you is being called to heal.
This might mean setting boundaries, exploring values, or doing self-work. Katherine pointed out that in the process, we often might disappoint others around us or do something they don’t like. But this can actually be a way for us to determine if we’re living in accordance with our values.
It’s helpful to periodically pause and reflect whether we have disappointed others around us. If the answer is no, that we have not seemingly let anybody in our lives down recently, it’s a good sign that we aren’t holding to our own values.
If the answer is yes, we can remind ourselves that this likely means we are staying strong to our values.
When we embrace our values and stay confident in our own worthiness, we can accept that disappointing others means we are living in a way that feels right to us.
If you’re struggling with unhealthy perfectionism or feeling like you’re failing, working with a mom therapist can help. Book a FREE 15 minute virtual consultation today!